The outbreak of war with Iraq caught several House members in a "golf" crisis, of sorts, as they attended a tobacco industry conference yesterday at a resort near Palm Springs in the California desert.
The Tobacco Institute cut short its annual "legislative conference" at the La Quinta Hotel, Golf and Tennis Resort because of the fighting in Iraq and Kuwait, a spokesman said. The three-day event traditionally has featured sun, golf and $2,000 speaking fees for members of Congress.
Before the 10 House members attending the conference left yesterday on a charter flight back to Washington, they made brief remarks to a morning session, according to a meeting participant and members' aides. Though members no longer can pocket honoraria payments, a trade group can send the money to a charity the member designates.
Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) told the group everyone will remember where they were when Operation Desert Storm began and "I will remember I was in the desert," according to one person in the audience.
Jo Bonner, Callahan's chief of staff, said although he could not deny the congressman had made such a statement Callahan is so concerned about the crisis that "it would be hard to me to believe he would make a glib, insensitive comment."
He added that Callahan considered not making the trip because of the threat of war. The lawmaker, who backed giving the president authority to go to war, decided to go to Palm Springs because he believes "when Congress isn't in session, members should get out of Washington," Bonner added. Callahan "didn't have time to unpack his golf clubs, if he took them," he said.
The war also short-circuited at least two other out-of-town events popular with members of Congress. Some 18 senators scheduled to take part in Republican Sen. Jake Garn's annual charity ski event in Utah have canceled, a spokesman for the event said, although some of their families will attend. The Aspen Institute canceled its seminar on U.S.-Soviet affairs that had been scheduled to start yesterday in Jamaica. Former senator Dick Clark (D-Iowa), head of the institute, said 24 members of Congress had signed up to attend the four-day event, but members started canceling last weekend.
The Tobacco Institute's conference had been expected to attract three senators and 27 House members, including House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). Some of the industry officials plan to stay on at the resort for business meetings. Tobacco Institute President Sam Chilcote told the group that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the scheduled Friday dinner speaker, and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) would try to fly out to join the meeting, one participant said.
A Burns spokesman said the senator decided against going to La Quinta Wednesday night, shortly after U.S. air attacks on Iraq began. Helms's office didn't return a reporter's call.
An official at the conference, who asked not to be identified, said that besides Callahan, the House members at La Quinta were: Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.); Bob Carr (D-Mich.); Jim Chapman (D-Tex.); Tom DeLay (R-Tex.); David Dreier (R-Calif.); H. Martin Lancaster (D-N.C.); Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.); Robin Tallon (D-S.C.); and Tim Valentine (D-N.C.).
Dreier aide Bradley W. Smith said his boss drove to La Quinta from his nearby district yesterday morning and planned to return home immediately. "He doesn't golf or play tennis," Smith said. Dreier instead flew back to Washington last night, he added.
Staff researchers Ralph Gallaird Jr. and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.